How to reform European elections?

By Damien Bol, King’s College London

What is the story?

The EU is at a critical moment in its development. Many citizens express a negative attitude towards European integration and do not trust European decision makers. A proposal that has been put forward to mitigate this problem, and to help European representatives gain the confidence of the population, is to create a pan-European district in which a small number of MEPs would be elected.

In a recent paper we evaluated this proposal via a unique online experiment where we invited thousands of Europeans to report how they would vote in a pan-European ballot. We find that vote choice in a pan-European district would be substantially affected by the presence of national candidates on the lists. We discuss the implications of our findings and derive some recommandations for European decision makers.

The EuroVotePlus experiment

In the three weeks preceding the 2014 EP election, we conducted an online experiment (for a discussion of the details of this experiment, see this other paper). We created a multi-lingual website, open to all, where users were invited to learn more about European elections in general and the rules used to elect MEPs and to participate in an online voting experiment.

In the experimental part of the website, we invited people to indicate their vote preference in the upcoming European election using the party lists utilized in their district. We also asked all participants, regardless of their country, to indicate how they would vote if 10 additional members of the European Parliament were to be elected in a pan-European district. We simulated a pan-European ballot by creating party lists based on the existing political groups in the European Parliament. We randomly picked, for each respondent, 10 incumbent MEPs from each political group. A screenshot of a pan-European ballot is presented below. The ballot contained the name of the candidate, his/her nationality, and a picture.

figure_DAMIEN

Findings

In the pan-European ballot, people were invited to cast a vote under different electoral rules. We first asked them to cast a vote under closed-list proportional representation for which they could only choose one list. Even if the participants appeared to be ideologically driven, as they voted massively for the pan-European list corresponding to the party they had the intention to vote for in the national ballot, they were strongly affected by the nationality of the candidates appearing on the list. They were 48% times more likely to vote for a list when there was a least one candidate of their country.

We also asked them to vote under open-list proportional representation for which they could choose one list and give extra points to individual candidates of this list. The effects were similar to those observed under closed-list proportion representation, but we observed that the participants were 8 times more likely to give a positive point to candidates of their own nationality.

Recommandations

We derive two concrete recommendations for EU decision makers. First, if a pan-European district is created, we recommend establishing a maximum number of candidates from each EU country on the lists. If this number is not fixed, pan-European parties, anticipating the effect of the nationality of candidates on vote choice, would be likely to nominate candidates from large countries.

Second, if a pan-European district is created, the argument developed in this article lends support to the implementation of a closed-list PR system, instead of an open-list PR system. Since we find that Europeans would give more positive votes to national candidates, the open-list PR system would also lead to the domination of the pan-European seats by large countries.

All in all, although we see the great potential of creating a pan-European district to reduce the EU democratic deficit, we recommend being cautious in setting the precise rules for this election.

For more details, see Damien Bol, Philipp Harfst, André Blais, Sona Golder, Jean-François Laslier, Laura Stephenson, and Karine Van der Straeten. “Addressing Europe’s Democratic Deficit: An Experimental Evaluation of the Pan-European District Proposal.” European Union Politics.

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